While centuries of persecution have nearly wiped out European wolves, they are making a comeback in Italy. One of the threats to the species is interbreeding with feral dogs but the Italian wolf population is still pure, according to new research in the April issue of Conservation Biology.
Wolves are recovering faster in Italy than elsewhere in Europe, says Ettore Randi of the Italian Institute of Wildlife Biology in Ozzano dell'Emilia, Italy, who co- authored this paper.
Wolves are gone in much of western Europe and nearly died out in Italy. By the 1970s, only about 100 wolves survived in 10 isolated areas of the Italian Apennines. Protected since 1976, the Italian wolf population has grown by about 7% per year and is now estimated at 400. If the population keeps growing, Italian wolves could recolonize the Alps and so extend their range into neighboring countries, says Randi.
In addition to interbreeding with feral dogs, current threats to European wolves include competition for food and space. Each year, hunters, farmers and ranchers shoot and poison up to 20% of the total Italian population, targeting dispersing juveniles and small, newly founded packs.
Other researchers have found evidence of hybridization between wolves and feral dogs in Romania and western Russia. To see if Italian wolves have also interbred with dogs, Randi and his colleagues compared the mitochondrial DNA of samples from 101 Italian wolves, 29 Bulgarian wolves, 20 wolves from other parts of Europe and 50 dogs (nine feral dogs from Italian wolf habitat, and 41 domestic dogs).
The researchers found one DNA sequence that was unique to
Italian wolves, six that were unique to Bulgarian wolves and
seven that were unique to Italian feral dogs. While the
Bulgarian wolves had feral dog sequences, the Italian wolves
did not. These results indicate that while some east European
wolves have hybridized with dogs, Italian wolves have so far
Contact: Ettore Randi
Society for Conservation Biology